Warning: In this post I’m going to attempt to portray American television executives in a semi-favorable light. This is a difficult stunt that should only be attempted by trained professionals. Or idiots. Do not try this at home.
Johnny Carson was the man. He still is. Nobody has held the top slot on late night for as long as he did. Given the fragmented state of pop culture and the proliferation of late night shows, this is not going to change in my lifetime. We will never see another Johnny Carson.
It’s difficult to impress on young people just how powerful his reach was. 6.5 million people watched him every night. That’s about double what YouTube giant PewDiePie averages. But saying he’s “twice as popular as PewDiePie” is really underselling just how omnipresent Carson was. PewDiePie gets his 3 million viewers in a world of 3.2 billion internet users. Carson got his 6.5 million viewers from a potential audience of 220 millionThe population of the United States at the end of the 1970’s. Americans. To put that in perspective 1 in 1,000 internet users watch PewDiePie, while 1 in 34 American Television viewers watched Carson. Which means that in the U.S. everyone, everyone knew who Johnny Carson was.
Most of my extended family has never heard of PewDiePie, Philip Defranco, RayWilliamJohnson, or any of the other YouTube giants I can’t be bothered to look up right now. In fact, I’d never heard of RayWilliamJohnson either, and I’m on YouTube all the time. I didn’t know who he was until I typed “most popular youtubers” into Google three minutes ago.
This is not to belittle the accomplishments of those YouTubers. I’m just saying our culture has changed so that – outside of perhaps world leaders – nobody can ever be as universally recognized as Carson was in the United States.
Even if you don’t watch late night shows, you probably know the format: The show is shot in front of an audience. There’s a stage in the middle and an interview desk off to one side. Behind the desk is usually a faux-window alluding to the city where the show is produced. There’s a sidekick who introduces the host, and who jumps in for comedy bits that require back-and-forth dialog. There’s also a live band, which (for the people watching at home) does little more than play the intro music and the segue into and out of commercial breaks. The show begins with the opening monologue, which is usually a series of light, generally inoffensive takes on the day’s news. After that is a comedy bit, usually involving the sidekick. Then the first guest, which is usually a major celebrity. Then a musical guest. Most shows go on to feature a second guest. Often there’s a second, shorter comedy bit thrown in between the longer segments.
The order might change slightly, and sometimes the desk is on the right instead of the left, but this is basically the formula as it’s existed for half a century. Depending on where you’re from, the genre is sometimes called talk showsWhich confuses them with things like Oprah, The View, or Ellen., variety showsWhich confuses them with stuff like America’s Got Talent. or (my preferred term) “late night shows”. Obviously Carson didn’t invent the format, but he perfected and codified it. If you go back before Carson, the shows might feel a little strange to modern sensibilities. Jack Parr (Carson’s predecessor) and Dick Cavett (Carson’s occasional competition) would come off as incredibly stiff and dry today.
The King of Late Night
Carson hosted the Tonight Show for 30 years. It was the flagship of the NBC network. The show was so popular that rival networks ABC and CBS usually didn’t bother trying to compete. Rather than put up late night shows of their own, they put up other kinds of programming. I was 21 years old when Carson finally retired, and yet I have no memory of what these shows were. Nobody talked about them and nobody cared, because Carson was the king of late night.
Note that my source for the ratings I’ll be discussing throughout this article is this Wall Street Journal chart. It’s a really interesting visualization of the changing fortunes of late night. I’ve saved this snapshot of the chart just in case that link goes dead. The chart begins in 1991, just when late night shows began to proliferate. Before 1982, the chart would just be Johnny Carson’s face, all by itself, over and over, for about 20 yearsActually, there were various contenders like Dick Cavett along the way. But they were hopelessly outmatched by Carson and their shows did not last long..
The Tonight show came on at 11:30PM, directly following the nightly news. Remember that this pre-dates cable television, so we’re talking about a world where the nightly news is the major source of information for most people.
The show was so successful that NBC decided to follow it up with another one. In 1982, NBC introduced Late Night with David Letterman, which followed the Tonight Show timeslot.
Letterman ran a different sort of show. He was young, informal, and irreverent. His set looked cheap on purpose. The window behind the desk was a primitive model of New York, and he often did comedy bits that drew attention to how absurd and fake it looked. (Such as pretending it was a real window.) His jokes were a little edgier.
Letterman also had a bit of a mean streak. Occasionally he’d mock guests. Sometimes he’d do it to their face. Sometimes he’d mock them during the opening monologue before they came out. If a member of the audience wound up on camera, he wasn’t afraid to make them the butt of a few jokes. If they stopped smiling, he wouldn’t back off, which sometimes made him seem like a bit of a bully. His goal was to make the audience laugh, and if he had to hurt some feelings to get there? To him, that’s just show business.
A lot of the show was a deliberate subversion of the more classy Tonight Show formula. A lot of his comedy bits – such as Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks – look more like a precursor to Jackass than anything on late night. It was a show designed to look like it was made on the cheap, and to give the sense that the clowns were running the circus.
The subversive tone and late timeslot meant the show wasn’t very popular with the traditional Tonight Show audience. Those folks had jobs and couldn’t stay up until 1:30 in the morning watching a bunch of (to them) juvenile tomfoolery. But while the show didn’t connect with married adults, it was a massive hit with teens and college students.
And so it was for a decade. Mom and dad watched Johnny Carson, and then they went to bed and the kids snuck out of their rooms and watched David Letterman.
End of an Era
In 1992, the time came for Carson to retire. NBC needed to replace him. There were several candidates:
- Joan Rivers was probably the front-runner for Carson’s job until her public feud with Carson in the late 80’s. I haven’t seen enough of her appearances to know what she was like as a host, but she was notoriously controversial outside of the show. She’d go anywhere for a joke. Nothing was sacred. She made David Letterman look like Mister Rogers.
- Garry Shandling was another possibility. He hosted the Tonight Show several times in the 80’s, as Carson took more and more time off. People talked about him taking Carson’s job, but I think he was always the dark horse candidate. He wasn’t as quick or as funny as Carson when interviewing guests, and his deliberately awkward affectation was off-putting to some.
- Jay Leno. Well, we all know he got the job. His upbeat style fit the existing tone of the show. Leno is unpopular these days as a guy who maybe got a little too comfortable and told the same jokes for a little too long. Also there was what he did to Conan O’brien. We’ll talk about that later. The point is that in 1992, Leno was the obvious choice. The safe choice.
- David Letterman. Letterman was the other “obvious” choice. He was popular. He was funny. He’d proven he could run his own show.
By 1992, it was basically a race between Leno and Letterman. And I think Leno represented the better choice. His style of comedy fit with the existing Tonight Show format, while Letterman felt more like a renegade. Letterman was popular with young people, but the Tonight Show was and always had been aimed at an older audience.
If I was a TV network executive in 1992, I’d do the same thing they did. I’d pick Leno over Letterman. Yeah, Leno’s charm had faded somewhat after a decade or so in the chair. But in 1992 he was young, energetic, funny, and (most importantly) popular with the existing Tonight Show audience. Most people look down on the NBC executives for making this call, but they do so with the benefit of hindsight. Based on what everyone knew when Carson retired, Leno made the most sense.
The problem was that David Letterman didn’t want to spend the rest of his career at one in the morning, telling jokes to people who fell asleep watching The Tonight Show. What was he gonna do? Wait a few decades for Leno to retire and hope NBC gave him the job the next time around?
Dave wanted to be in the big timeslot. He wanted the cultural impact and prestige of being on right after the nightly news. At the same time, CBS was tired of surrendering the 11:30pm slot to NBC every night. They wanted their own show.
And so it happened. Letterman moved to CBS to host The Late Show with David Letterman. And then he kicked the crap out of NBC in the ratings.
He had a more prestigious timeslot and a bigger budget, but he kept all the hallmarks of his old show: Cheap sets, informal presentation, and humor with a bit of an edge.
He probably wouldn’t have been able to defeat Carson, but Jay Leno was a soft target. It was the 90’s, and everything was going edgier. The Simpsons, Married With Children, and (to a lesser extent) Home Improvement were slaughtering the sacred cows of sitcoms. Gone were the days of Dad holding the family together with folksy wisdom and family values. Dysfunctional families were in, and TV dads were morons. Gen-X was on the rise, and they (including me) were too sarcastic and cynical for a family-friendly guy like Leno. Letterman’s subversive bent made him the right man for the time.
You can fault the network executives for not detecting the prevailing cultural mood and adapting, but again, this is an argument that depends on hindsight. From their perspective you could easily imagine things going the other way. Imagine if they went with Letterman and kicked Leno to the curb. Letterman’s laid-back, irreverent style might have been off-putting to the existing Tonight Show audience. Maybe the married moms and dads of America would turn the show off, leaving NBC with the far less lucrative (to advertisers) teen market. And that’s assuming that teens would tune in for the new show. Maybe Gen-X has better things to do at 11:30. Meanwhile, Leno could just as easily have jumped to one of the other networks and taken Carson’s audience with him.
The argument was always about which guy was the right guy, but it’s entirely possible neither one of them was. Maybe nobody was. Maybe NBC was screwed no matter what they did, because nobody else was Johnny Carson. Maybe the shifting culture meant that there couldn’t be another Johnny Carson.
Given the uncertainty, I’d say favoring the existing tone and audience of a show is safer than trying to re-invent a show to appeal to a new demographic. While things turned out badly for NBC, I think they made the best decision they could. Anything better would have required a time machine.
Dave’s glory was short-lived anyway. By 1995, the Tonight Show had reclaimed the throne. Leno and Letterman were roughly evenly matched, but from this point Leno always managed to stay ahead in the ratings.
But it didn’t matter. The narrative had been created: Those dumb squares running NBC were foolish and made the wrong call, ending the 30 years of cultural dominance that Carson had maintained.
The Age of Conan
Meanwhile, Conan O’brien took over Letterman’s old show. Regardless of what you think of his humor in front of the camera, he was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant writers working at the time. He was a writer on Saturday Night Live during one of the most successful periods of the show. After that, he was a writer for then-juggernaut The Simpsons. You can’t have a better resumé than that.
He also made tonal sense. He was like Letterman, only moreso. His comedy was even more off-the-wall. His presentation was even more primitive. (One of his long-running gags involved holding flashlight under his face while predicting the future and refusing to use anything that might pass for a proper costume or special effect. For contrast, it makes Carson’s Carnac skits look like Broadway productions.) He was capable of cruel put downs, but he aimed them at himself rather than outward. Like Dave, his show captured the feeling of clowns running the circus. He had entire skits where the entire punchline was basically, “Can you believe we’re doing something this goofy on network television?” If a Letterman joke bombed, it was probably because it was too mean. If a Conan joke bombed, it was probably too strange.
When Letterman departed and left the show to Conan, the viewership fell from 3.6 million to 2.5. That’s a serious drop. However, that all happened at the transition. Once the show was his, Conan would maintain that 2.5 million viewers throughout his entire tenure. Rival shows came along every few years and and carved out their own share of the late night pie, but they never took any viewers from Conan. The show never grew, but the fans that remained were fiercely loyal.
The Network System
It should be noted that when we’re talking about direct viewers, we’re ignoring a layer of complexity in the whole situation. Because this is still the age of broadcast television. By 1993 cable TV had conquered the big cities, but people in rural areas often continued to rely on shows broadcast over the airwaves and captured by primitive antennae. It was easy for the big shots on the coast to dismiss all of those people in “flyover country”, but even though those local markets were small there were a lot of them.
In the United States, each region had their own set of local television stations. For example: Around western Pennsylvania, there were three major players:
- Channel 2 KDKA, which carried CBS programming.
- Channel 4 WTAE, which carried ABC programming.
- Channel 11 WPXI, which carried NBC programming.
There was also the minor player channel 53 WPGH, which (at this point in time) tended to run programming for the relatively young FOX network. For the curious: The region also had a PBS station, although public television isn’t really relevant to the drama we’re talking about here.
Note that both the local station and the national network need to run commercials. In the case of late night talk shows, you may remember the bumper screens that said things like, “There’s more TONIGHT SHOW coming up!” Or perhaps, “More to come…” You’ll watch a couple of commercials, then the bumper screen pops up, and then you get more commercials. This bumper is the point where control is handed off from the national network to the local station, and the commercials switch from “Coca-Cola” to “Honest Andy Tri-state Ford Dealership”. Technically, NBC is broadcasting that “We’ll be right back!” screen the whole time. The bumper also gives the two sides a bit of wiggle room, so the local station doesn’t have to perfectly fill the available time with advertising. If they end up with an extra four or five seconds at the end, they can just seamlessly give that time to the bumper without worrying about dead air.
When a local channel chooses to carry a national network, it makes them an affiliate of the network. While being an affiliate is usually seen as being an exclusive kind of deal, it doesn’t have to be. Depending on how the contracts are set up, a local station might choose to carry (say) ABC during the day, but then switch over to showing NBC programming in the evening. This was probably most common in small regions that didn’t have enough local stations to carry all of the networks. Instead of aligning themselves with a single network, a station might choose whichever network was strongest in the given timeslot.
I know it’s strange to imagine today, but in this pre-internet world it was possible that you just couldn’t watch a particular show. The local affiliate might switch to another network just as your favorite show came on, or they might dump the network in favor of a locally-produced show.
If show A was doing slightly better than show B, then some of the more freewheeling local stations would switch networks so they could broadcast A. This would make A even more popular, which would give it more cultural impact, which made it more attractive to advertisers, which might expand the show’s budget, which might cause even more local stations to dump B in favor of A. There might be millions of people who preferred B, but it just wasn’t on in their region. Which means this system tended to amplify trends. The popular got more popular, and niche shows either stagnated or died.
In 2002, ABC finally(!) launched their own show. They did so timidly. They put Jimmy Kimmel Live! on at midnight, a half hour after the other two shows.
This makes some kind of sense, as the shows are generally structured to put the content in order of decreasing popularity. Everyone watches the opening monologue, most people watch the first skit, many people stay for the first guest, some people stay for the musical guest, and a few hang around until the very end. I imagine their thinking was that if they put Kimmel against Leno directly, he’d lose. But maybe Kimmel’s first half hour could win against Leno’s second half hour? Maybe people would watch the best part of the Tonight Show, and then switch over to see the first half of Jimmy Kimmel?
It’s impossible to tell if this was their thinking, if it worked, or even if they believed that it was working. It’s hard to take accurate measurements in a shrinking field amid the constant noise of new shows bursting onto the scene and vanishing again like fireworks.
Avoiding Past Mistakes by Making New Ones
In 2004, a few things began to shake the status quo. Depending on who you ask, there was a fear, or a rumor, or a threat, or a delusion, that Conan was going to leave NBC. His show hadn’t conquered the network, but over time it had performed admirably. Moreover, Conan was the kind of writer you didn’t want to see in the hands of your rivals. It was thought that he might jump to ABC. Like Letterman before him, the Late Night desk seemed a little too small, and the Tonight Show desk seemed very impressive and inviting.
I’m not sure how serious the ABC threat was. They’d just launched Jimmy Kimmel Live. Were they really looking for a replacement already? Did they want to dump Kimmel and re-launch with “Conan O’brien Live”? Or was this an empty threat by Conan? Or paranoia on the part of NBC?
I guess it doesn’t matter if the threat was real or not. NBC thought it was real, and that prompted them to act. They didn’t want a repeat of 1992, where one of their own became a serious threat and the world mocked the executives for not predicting the future. So rather than leave things to chance, they formed a transition plan several years in advance. Everyone agreed to it: Leno. Conan. The network. In five years, Conan would get the Tonight Show.
It was also kind of clear that Leno wasn’t really ready to go. He loved doing the show and he didn’t want to retire. But for whatever reason, he obligingly agreed to give it up.
However, the problem remained that the two shows had vastly different audiences. They used very different styles of humor and had a different tone. Most importantly, there was no guarantee that the people who liked the Tonight Show would enjoy Conan O’brien. There was also no guarantee that Conan’s existing fanbase would follow him to a new show.
This is the part of the story you probably already know, and where people began dumping hate and blame on Leno and NBC. Conan took over, and the ratings promptly dropped. It’s true they’d been in decline for the last few years. This was true across the board. Internet platforms like Netflix and YouTube had been eroding television’s cultural dominance. At the same time, the number of talk shows had grown. In 1991, there were a total of four shows. By 2009, there were 11. Everyone was getting a smaller slice of the pie, because it was being shared by more shows.
But while this can explain the slow, long-term decline in ratings, it doesn’t really excuse the serious drop that happened when Conan took over. And with apologies to the very talented Conan O’brien, I think that drop comes down to the differences in the hosts.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two hosts more different than Leno and Conan. Leno was very safe, predictable, nonthreatening, and family-friendly. Conan was surreal, dark, unorthodox, and absurd. By the standards of the genre he was avant-garde, and his material wasn’t connecting with the traditionalist Tonight Show audience. I personally love Conan, but I also get that his peculiar style just doesn’t work for some people. There’s a level of meta-ness to his humor that falls completely flat among older folks who still make up the majority of the Tonight Show audience. “The joke is I’m not doing the joke you’d expect in this context.”
Again, what should the network have done? Let Conan leave for ABC and risk having yet another rival for the all-important 11:30 timeslot? That’s what happened in 1992, and everyone criticized them for it. This time they did the opposite. They had a plan, they got everyone to agree to it, and they promoted the host of Late Night to The Tonight Show. This was everything people say they should have done back in 1992, and things still blew up in their face.
Conan’s ratings were tanking. Jay really wanted his old show back. NBC just wanted the ratings to recover as fast as possible. Dumping Conan was the only business decision that made sense.
In any case, we have a beloved funnyman running a show that people don’t want to watch. This same fate could plausibly have happened to Letterman if he’d taken over the Tonight Show in 1992 instead of Leno. The problem is that everyone simply assumed that the Host of Late Night should graduate to The Tonight Show, when the two are vastly different shows. It’s like having an expectation that the actor playing Joker should someday get a promotion to Batman. There might be a very small number of people who can do both, but the vast majority are going to be much better for one role than the other.
At the time, Conan suggested that the show might improve if it was given more time. But people are fussy about their entertainment and fickle in their viewing habits. If they don’t like a show, they have literally dozens of other things they can watch without leaving the couch. The days where there were only three networks and you had to cross the room to watch something different were long gone. You can’t afford to “wait” for an audience to show up, because they might be settling in to some new habit at 11:30 and you’ll never get them back regardless of how good the show is.
This is not to say that the NBC executives were blameless. There is plenty of room to criticize their decision-making. But the really big damage came from decisions where there weren’t any easy answers, and it’s possible the alternatives were just as bad as what we got.
In the end, NBC got the one thing they were trying to avoid: Yet another talk show rival. After NBC forced him out, Conan got a show on TBSAfter a contractually obligated year off..
Leno returned to the Tonight Show. A lot of people hate on the guy for this. I get that. He agreed to leave, but then came back. It seemed like a weasel move. Howard Stern once suggested that the honorable thing would have been for Leno to jump to ABC, start a new show, and face off against Conan directly. That would have punished NBC for pushing him out before he was ready, while also honoring the agreement to let Conan have the show. It also would have given Leno the last laugh. “Be careful what you wish for, guys!”
I admit that this sounds pretty fun. I’d love to see how that would have turned out. I wonder what ABC would have named the show? By 2009, other shows had already used every possible permutation of “Late” and “Show” and “Night”. The trick here is that NBC probably anticipated this threat and built a non-compete agreement into Leno’s contract. Also, they gave Leno a show at the 10:30pm slot just before the news, to avoid exactly this kind of move.
We can play “what if” with various historical scenarios, but the important thing to note is that no matter what happens, NBC loses. If they did nothing, then (it was believed) Conan would go to ABC and start a new show. If they simply boot Leno and give the show to Conan without making preparations ahead of time (like making a non-compete contract and getting Leno to sign it) then Leno could go to ABC. If they stuck with Conan when ratings fell, then they end up with a weak show and Letterman could simply absorb the refugees from the Tonight Show audience. If they give the show back to Leno after giving Conan a chance, then Conan goes to TBS.
NBC was always in a no-win situation. At the end of Carson’s tenure, they already had everything. The show was as big as a television show could get. They had nothing to gain, and any change in the status quo would mean a loss for them. This trend continued to this day. As the leader, they were always the ones with the least to gain and the most to lose.
The State of Late Night
Leno hung around for another four years. During that time, the overall trend of declining talk shows continued. The Tonight Show was on top again, but by the end of Leno’s tenure there were a dozen shows in the genre. Not only that, but the public was losing interest in the genre as a whole. Not only were more people sharing the pie, but the pie itself was getting ever smaller. When Leno finally bowed out in 2012, his ratings were lower than Conan’s had been during his short-lived time as host. Numbers that were bad enough to make executives panic in 2008 were considered really good by 2012.
NBC tried again to take the host of Late Night and give him the Tonight show, and this time it seems to have worked out. Jimmy Fallon was embraced by the Tonight Show audience, and to this day he remains on top. Of course, being “on top” means less every year. People are calling Fallon the “King” of late night and saying he “dominates” the genre. And I suppose that’s true. He’s pretty far ahead of the others. But being the “king” of late night in 2016 means you have about the same size audience as Letterman in 1991 when he was still playing second-fiddle to Carson. Fallon’s great accomplishment is to run a show that’s about as popular as the one Letterman walked away from.
Carson took over the Tonight Show in 1962 at the age of 37. Fallon was of a similar age when he took over the show at 39. If history is kind to him, Fallon could enjoy a 30 year run like Carson’s. But regardless of who is hosting the show in 2044, it’s clear that the age of late night is over. It’s not Fallon’s fault. It’s just the way things go. Books were supplanted by radio, which was supplanted by television, which is being supplanted by the internet.
Note that I said supplanted, not killed. I’m not suggesting television is going to die. In the same way that we’ll always have books, we’ll always have radio and television in one form or another. But the point stands that Fallon is the ruler of a shrinking empire.
I have no idea what NBC plans to do for the next transition. I’m sure they don’t either. The next in line for the shrinking throne is current host of Late Night Seth Meyers. Meyers currently has about 1.5 million viewers. For context, that’s one million fewer viewers than the Arsenio Hall show had in 1993 – when it was canceled for not being popular enough.
I imagine the executives at NBC are just praying that Fallon lives a long, long time.
 The population of the United States at the end of the 1970’s.
 Which confuses them with things like Oprah, The View, or Ellen.
 Which confuses them with stuff like America’s Got Talent.
 Actually, there were various contenders like Dick Cavett along the way. But they were hopelessly outmatched by Carson and their shows did not last long.
 After a contractually obligated year off.
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